CS @ UHM @ 2025: Stakeholder Perspectives, Version 1.0

Philip Johnson
11 min readOct 15, 2020

In the Summer of 2020, I began holding Zoom interviews with ICS alumni and members of the local high tech community to get their opinions regarding computer science at the University of Hawaii. I asked them about their experience with UH computer science in the past and present. The final question was always some variant of the following:

Five years from now, in 2025, what is one change we should make to improve the impact of computer science at UHM?

As I worked on this project, the number of people on my list to interview increased faster than my bandwidth to perform interviews. Rather than delay the distribution of results indefinitely, I’ve decided to release these findings from initial set of interviews as “Version 1.0”. My intent is to release updated versions of this document as I accumulate additional perspectives from future interviews.

In reviewing this first set of interviews, the following themes emerged:

  • We need to understand the “culture” around both the CS student body and the CS local workforce. Improving CS education and its local impact must take into account the culture.
  • We need to improve professional development. There were two recurrent themes regarding ways to better prepare our students for their profession: (1) go beyond “coding” to provide skills and experiences in various forms of software engineering, and (2) ensure that students have experience in real-world high tech companies through internships prior to graduation.
  • Offshore development is real, and is a threat to weakly prepared CS graduates. But it is not a threat if we do better at professional development.
  • There can be a bright future for high tech in Hawaii, one in which the local high tech community and UH work together to solve near and long-term problems.

The remainder of this document provides more depth on each of these themes, using the (lightly edited) words of the interviewees.

On the culture of CS education in Hawaii

“There was nothing about my education that led me to believe I would be successful in computer science. The only thing I thought about was the money. In my first semester CS class, I felt really out of place; I had no clue what was happening. It took me three semesters to understand anything. I realized that if I was going to make it in computer science, I had to try really hard. That’s why I’m so involved in increasing awareness of STEM in Hawaii. I didn’t have the background and I didn’t feel smart in any of my computer science classes (in fact I still don’t feel smart), but I developed the motivation to try hard and I think a lot of Hawaii kids have that inside them. Hawaii kids have the potential, but there’s not a lot of awareness, and therefore there’s not a lot of motivation.”

“The community that I have with my peers from school has been really helpful. I still talk to them, one of them is in New York, and we still talk. UH is a different world, and the community that you form in school provides a sense of trust. You can talk to each other and get advice.”

“I was working at a job fair, and a recent UH CS student came to me to ask if I would help his friend. So, I talked to the friend, found out his interests, and then told him to go talk to several different companies. I saw him later and asked how it went, and he said, “Oh, all I did was turn in my resume”. I told him he missed the whole point of the job fair, which is to actually talk to the company representatives. As I spoke to him more, I realized that he had a deficit in motivation, and also a deficit in understanding what it takes to get a job. Finally, I asked the first student why he wasn’t also talking to companies, and he said, “Oh, I’ve already accepted a job at Amazon”. I feel this exemplifies the local situation: you’ve got a few graduates who are recruited by everybody, and then a bunch who are trying for a job in the local market with nothing on their resume and without the desire to hustle.”

“I am in the global technology market, and I live in Hawaii. One thing that I’ve noticed is that often Hawaii organizations/people focus on Hawaii opportunities. For example, many of our UH graduates only look at Hawaii companies for employment. If you took UH and put it in the middle of Silicon Valley, the opportunities grow tremendously. In my view, in this growing global business environment and with remote working becoming a first class option, a Hawaii-only focus, especially in education, is detrimental.”

On professional development: making it an educational priority

“Hawaii kids need to be exposed to coding interviews. If you limit yourselves to companies that don’t give coding interviews, then that’s a really small job market. They need to be exposed to this before they go out on the job market.”

“What we need to do is produce graduates that can compete for jobs anywhere in the world. We need a degree program that enable graduates to grow, and that provides them with projects that improve their marketability.”

“Some of my computer science friends couldn’t get jobs, and I feel like UH needs to do a better job of preparing them to get jobs. One of my friends just threw up his hands and got a job as a secretary.”

On professional development: better training in software engineering

“One of the things defense is pushing is data science. Several of my co-workers pivoted from something like geography to data science, and that’s left them at a disadvantage when it comes to engineering. They don’t know how to design infrastructure to maximize flexibility: for example, to make data available to different pipelines. Combine software engineering skills with data science, and that gives a student a competitive advantage.”

“ICS seems to work under the assumption that you will learn actual software engineering on the job, and it seems like the program is training for academia. That all of the undergrads are going for M.S. or Ph.D. degrees, but I don’t think that reflects reality.”

“I’d like to see more emphasis on actual software engineering and building software right. A lot of the classes that focus on programming only work on toy programs. I’d like to see a program where students work on significant systems, so that by the time they graduate, if they want to do a startup, they think to themselves, “I can do that by myself.” Or to go into an organization and implement brand new technology all by themselves, to be change agents, instead of being technical babies.”

“I feel there should be more emphasis on product design so that students develop the skill of identifying problems, designing software to solve those problems, and knowing how to implement it and deploy it to end-users. And this includes Lean Methodology concepts so that students know when they are making assumptions about their end-users and know how to come up with hypotheses and test assumptions.”

“You absolutely want students to get a deep understanding of computer science, but while you’re doing that, you can also be coding with your fellow students, using GitHub, making pull requests, and using a development process that resembles the way it’s going to work after you graduate.”

“My company wants to see people who have coded with other coders: we don’t want people who have been in a dark room by themselves, writing software that they saved in folders with dates for names.”

“The upper level ICS courses are pretty diverse, but when you get a job, you only use the skill sets from a small number of those classes. It would be useful to have more UI and design classes. It would also be helpful for students to have experience building and managing databases of real-world size and complexity.”

“When it comes to State government, the people we have problems hiring are those that have skills that go beyond just coding: we need data analysts, program managers, data scientists, business analysts, enterprise architects. Folks who can do requirements analysis and documentation that can lead up to contract writing.”

“The following chart summarizes how we’re trying to organize things at the State level:

Of course, an undergraduate can’t be expected to learn every single one of these skill sets, but the people who are going to do really well and move up in our organization are the people who not only have a firm foundation in a subset of these skills but also understand the bigger picture and how they fit in, because they are the ones who can make the work align with the business needs.”

“I feel that CS graduates these days are not skilled at communicating with the different generations of workers. I classify generations by the technology that was in place when they started, so there’s essentially four generations: mainframe, PC, laptop, mobile. So, if you come from the mainframe generation, you’re used to reading documentation. If you come from the mobile generation, you assume you can just poke around and figure stuff out. To roll out technology successfully in an organization, you have to be able to communicate to all the different generations.”

On professional development: the need for internships and on-the-job training

“When we hire your students, we know we need between 6 to 18 months of investment in mentoring and training to get them to be productive. But we know that this is not acceptable to other companies who are unhappy with your graduates and don’t want to invest this additional amount of time to make them productive.”

“We have an experiment going right now, where we’ve hired a high school student as an intern, and he’s now entering the CS program at UH. We’ll keep him as an intern through all four years, and then see if he hits the ground running after he graduates (if he decides to stay with us).”

“There’s no shortage of resumes. But one of our pain points is the level of inexperience of new grads. We would prefer not to have to wait five or six years for a new grad to achieve the level of expertise we need from our lead developers.”

“I think having an internship with a local company would be a great requirement for the degree. Students needs to have some understanding of real world businesses and how technical skills can be applied. So many companies in Hawaii essentially want to hire an “entry level person with three year’s experience”. Without one or more internships, you can’t compete for those kinds of jobs as a new graduate.”

“The State has just renewed a program in which a company can apply to the state to receive funds so they can offer paid internships. If we can get more of our talented local kids to do local internships, it will increase the odds that they’ll stay here after graduation.”

Off-shore development cannot replace skilled local developers

“I would rather not use off-shore development, but we don’t have enough people locally to do the work. Off-shore brings security risks. I think Hawaii could be “offshore” for the mainland: kids could do software development and surf in the mornings, or work early in the morning because they’re working with a mainland company and then surf in the afternoon. I think this is a great opportunity for Hawaii to support good paying jobs with flexibility about when you work.”

“Some of our better projects are succeeding because (in part) my development team and my staff sit upstairs on the same floor together. And they talk all the time and work through problems, and they don’t have to worry about time zones and when can they speak to people in India. On the other hand, I’m involved in another project using off-shore resources, and I’m never quite sure how they are going to interpret my requirements. Sometimes they send things off and completely miss the mark. So I would absolutely prefer to have my team nearby.”

“Vietnam is going to be the next hotspot for offshore development. And if Manoa keeps graduating computer science students without any experience doing real-world software development, it’s going to be hard for those students to compete with places like Vietnam where they charge $10/hour. On the other hand, if students can come out with a couple of years of real-world experience, then I want them. Especially if they’ve been working already in my organization through an internship.”

On the future of high tech in Hawaii

“For 2025, one goal could be to dramatically increase the number of B.S. degrees you graduate. Seattle University is graduating 500 students, and UH is graduating 30. If UH wants to make a transformational impact, then you need to graduate 5 to 10 times the number of students, but at the same time, increase their level of professional development.”

“I think there’s a lot of untapped opportunity for Hawaii to solve its own software needs. Right now, there’s a mentality that we have to bring in a mainland consultant like Gartner, who will say we have to use SalesForce, and that this will cost $10-$15 million a year for at least 3–5 years. But customizing a huge framework like SalesForce is difficult and rarely nails the customer requirements. As a result, the customer has to adapt to the software workflow, not the other way around. Often, the implementation of these framework systems turns the customer’s world upside down. I think we could build a tech force in Hawaii that could build custom software to address our software needs much better for a fraction of the cost.”

“I think Hawaii should be the leader in renewable energy and sustainable technology: we have the right environment for it and it impacts us directly. By 2045, we have to have 100% renewable resources, and by 2030, we’re supposed to have 80,000 jobs paying $80,000 or better in high tech fields. I think we need to link those two goals together. I talk with Silicon Valley people who are living at least part-time in Hawaii, and they say the biggest reason they don’t give money to support high tech in Hawaii is because we haven’t yet given them a good reason. I think if we come together as a community and focus on renewables and sustainability, there is untapped money for investment and to create those high paying jobs.”

“I’d like to see the University cultivate a culture of risk taking, of trying things that are right on the edges, and provide students with an understanding of the big challenges: social media AI, separating truth from false, and so forth. Get them thinking way outside their comfort zone, and if they’re interested, they can grow into these areas, and deal with more and more complexity. I think the University needs to provide more of this kind of safe space for ideas that fall outside the comfort zone for most people.”

“How do you get people to take pay cuts and come work for the State? I think you can do it if the leadership has vision: if you feel like working for the State will lead to innovation and a better future for everyone in Hawaii. But if you’re not inspired, then you’ll leave for another job that may not be inspiring, but at least it pays better.”

“The University of Hawaii’s number one mission should be to produce high quality humans with a great education across the spectrum. And if the focus was on that, then the rest of it will start to take care of itself. If you want Google to set up a campus here, the issue is not that we’re in the middle of the ocean, it’s that we’re not producing enough of those people to make it interesting for them.”

Acknowledgements

These conversations were extremely enlightening and informative, and I am so appreciative to all of the people who took the time to discuss the present and future of computer science at UH with me. These people include: Len Higashi (Executive Director, HTDC), Aaron Kagawa (Project Manager, Kentek, ICS M.S. 2005), Douglas Murdock (CIO, State of Hawaii), Todd Nacapuy (Former CIO, State of Hawaii), Steve Sakata (Vice President, eWorld), Patrick Sullivan (CEO, Oceanit), Ed White (Engineer, Barbaricum, ICS B.A. 2018), and one local high tech leader who prefers to remain anonymous.

Unlisted

--

--